Steadfast Love and Subversive Acts

The Politics of La Ofrenda:
The Days of the Dead

Kathleen Newman,
The University of Iowa

“In this Day of the Dead celebration, people mock death and gender and whatever else
needs a little push.” -- La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead

In the guise of a documentary, comparative study of Mexican and Chicano celebrations in remembrance of the dead on the first and second of November each year, La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead (1988) is itself both an offering (ofrenda) and a subversive communicative act. (1) Whereas the previous documentary collaboration between filmmakers Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz, Las Madres: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (1985), had focused on the resistance of a group of women to State terror in Muñoz’s native Argentina, La Ofrenda explores Portillo's cultural heritage: a Mexico of childhood memory and today's Mission District, the Chicano and Latino barrio of San Francisco, California. The script by Portillo, Fenton Johnson, and B. Ruby Rich, however, purposefully denies biography as an organizing principal of the film by creating an anonymous voice-over commentary. The alternation of two nameless narrators, one male, one female, serves to stress historical and cultural continuity, in counterpart to the community events and many interviews presented in the film. (2) Foregrounding its gendered narration, the film specifically "speaks to" the Latino community, to all women and men who, like Portillo, have journeyed at some time from Latin America to the United States or who live simultaneously in both cultures. The film also addresses children, the progeny of the patriarchal and matriarchal narrative voices, thus affirming Latino culture and history within the contemporary multicultural society of the United States and contemplating a future diverse society in which there would be hopefully no racism. Finally, imitating the playful Mexican and Chicano relation to death which the film considers a socially "healthy" intimacy with mortality and humility, La Ofrenda playfully mocks its viewers, giving all of us, whatever our heritage, "a little push" toward a radical transformation of social relations, toward a better life for the entire community through a different conceptualization of temporality and subjectivity.

The promotional flyer for the film includes the widely-quoted statement by Mexican writer Octavio Paz, the same quotation chosen to close the film: "The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris or London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and most steadfast love." Yet, the flyer also describes the film's female narrator as expressing a "Chicana's quest to understand her culture," which "evokes the loving and sometimes humorous nature of Mexican attitudes toward death in a film saturated with color and life." By juxtaposing these two statements, the flyer reveals one of the underlying strategies of the film: death as the Chicana's steadfast love will be revealed in the film to be slightly different from death as the steadfast love of the Mexican (male) citizen. (3) In other words, death pronounced by con temporary Chicana lips, in contrast to a nearly silent, but omnipresent Anglo culture of death, has a different meaning.

In fact, the viewer sees death pronounced on Chicana lips quite late in this fifty-minute film. The first and greater part of the film is dedicated to the Days of the Dead in Mexico, with seven narrative segments as opposed to four in the second part of the film, which takes place in San Francisco. These first seven segments include: (1) all the preparations by an abuelita (grandmother) and her family in Oaxaca for the observance -- cleaning the cemetery plots, arranging the orange cempazuchitl (marigold) flowers on the grave, preparing a special family meal, praying at the home altar created in memory of the departed grandfather, and, finally, gathering with the rest of the community for the night vigil in the candlelit cemetery; (2) a synthetic history of indigenous concepts of death, in particular, Mitla, the land of the dead; (3) a meditation on the conquest and the fall of the imperial Aztec city of Tenochtitlan; (4) the lineage of the calavera (skeleton) as cultural icon, from Jose Guadalupe Posada's engravings to Diego Rivera's great murals and the contemporary papier maché calaveras of folk artists such as the Linares family of Mexico City; (5) interviews in front of the Templo Mayor in the center of Mexico City with elderly, white tourists from the United States as to what they understand of the Aztec concept of death; (6) a conversation with a creator of matachines (here, wooden skeletons with arms and legs manipulated by strings) in his workshop; and (7) an analysis of the "baile de Oaxaca," a street celebration with a mock funeral in which men play women's roles, by means of a lengthy interview with the man who plays the character of the widow in the celebration.

The second part of the film contains footage of the Day of the Dead celebrations in San Francisco and includes shots of the altars in Mission District gallery spaces and the now traditional evening parade. These are interspersed with interviews with psychologist Concha Saucedo and artist Amalia Mesa-Bains, widely known for her altars/installations for women such as Frida Kahlo or Dolores del Rio, and three people's descriptions of altars: one woman explaining the meaning of each item on an altar, one man remembering in particular a friend who has died of AIDS, and one woman explaining an altar by children which is dedicated to "all the children [who are] dying in all the countries." The final segment. before the Paz quotation, presents a classroom of children in San Francisco who discuss with their teacher what they would wish for a classmate whose mother has died or for themselves before they die.

This narrative segmentation serves to suggest that Day of the Dead celebration in the Mission is a continuation of the celebrations in Mexico. Clearly intended for use in classrooms. the film reinforces pride in one’s culture among Chic no students and deepens the understanding of Chicano and Mexican culture among non-Chicanos. Yet the pace of the narrative also underscores the distance between the Mexican and Chicano cultures; the slower pace of the first part with its calm appreciation of ritual and of a more rural life culminates the urban. slightly more frenetic celebrations in the briefer second pan. By stressing that the celebrations In Mexico are an extension of indigenous cultural practices, the film also necessarily suggests the ways in which the Mission celebrations are distinct: they are an act of will that is a conscious. political effort to continue Amerindian and Mexican traditions.* Indeed the first person interviewed in the second part Concha Saucedo, indicates that the Chicano celebrations express those aspects of a culture people separated from their homeland wish to keep observing that even Chicanos born in the United States "are in a foreign culture." She explains that the Day of the Dead celebrations are an "acknowledgment that we all share the same ancestor. whether it is an ancestor who died yesterday or who died a thousand years ago."

This latter understanding of community and history this affirmative Chicano understanding of subjectivity and temporality becomes. as the narrative progresses. one of two central subversive gestures of the film with respect to its general multiracial audience. The film will seek to align albeit briefly. the Chicano and non- Chicano spectators' sense of time and the social relations that constitute self and other. It will do so in conjunction with another subversive gesture which occurs in the final segment of the first part the segment featuring a lengthy interview, mentioned above on the meaning of' an ofrenda with the man who plays the character of the widow It is at the beginning of this segment that the male narrator states that during the Day of' the Dead celebration people mock death and gender and whatever else needs a little push ''On screen at the segment' s end the man -as-widow still in makeup and partially in costume, makes an offering of an apple to the camera, a gesture simultaneously humorous and serious, literal and figural, which redefines momentarily gender, sexual, and class relations of the viewer and the Mexican community as represented in the film. These two highly self-conscious gestures ultimately rework the documentary goals of the film. In order to examine what these two gestures mean and how they are finally linked in the film, we must first consider the impact of the widow's words and gestures on the process of narrative cohesion for the film as a whole.

Eve Crosses Over

The opening images of street celebration in Oaxaca center on the men in masks and costumes dancing through the crowd, though there are visual asides, such as shots of a child in the skeleton costume, a young calavera, dancing with an adult. For the first time, the male and female narrators depart from their celebration of their indigenous past, and their lament of the horrors of the conquest, to critique contemporary Mexican society:

    Male: In this Day of the Dead celebration, people mock death and gender and whatever else needs a little push. We remember the dead by celebrating life. In the general disorder of the fiesta, everyone forgets himself but enters otherwise into forbidden situations and places. Music and mere noise are united, not to recreate or recognize themselves, but to swallow each other up.

    Female: In the rigidity of Mexican society, where rules of behavior have been prescribed for thousands of years, it's in the fiesta and the comparsa where we can allow ourselves to be free momentarily, to expose our inner selves to the rest of the community.

In that the “general disorder of the fiesta” is very brief, the viewer is given to understand, from the street theater images, that two of the most rigid systems in Mexican society are class and gender. Yet, this is not the European carnivalesque, where the sovereign is brought low for a day only to be confirmed more solidly and centrally powerful in the process. Rather, the symbolic exchange of the roles of power in the fiesta confirm the mortality of all and the return of power to none. Granted, on the surface, men playing women's roles in the comparsa parodies the patriarchal gender system in which men are inscribed in the positions of power. The men play the women as flighty creatures: the daughter with the sick husband is ineffectual; the widow is pitied for loving a man who abused her or mocked for trying to find a new husband at the funeral of the last one. But when the fictional doctor places a banana as phallus between the legs of the dying man already in his coffin, that which is considered male sexuality and virility, not to mention patrilineality itself, is shown to be farce. Farce with both feet in the grave, however, neutralizes all the inequality of class as well. Here it is important to remember that widowhood signals, in many narratives, not merely a civil status but a new economic identity. The widow of the comparsa, although beneficiary of the male's now lost wealth, will one day be a calavera, like everyone at the celebration. As the designer of matachines said in the previous segment about the symbol of the calavera: that is how we have to see ourselves. Though both in the comparsa and in the scene in the film the economic meaning of widowhood is displaced onto themes of sexuality, death-as-equalizer nonetheless eradicates all class divisions.

The forbidden situations and momentary exposure stressed by the male and female narrators seemingly locate sexuality in a timeless abandon beyond procreation and the responsibilities of childrearing. The filmmakers have the narrators underline the symbolic, celebratory suspension of the rules of behavior that discipline the populace, and therefore constitute its specific social organization, so that the narrators' commentary can anticipate the interview with the man-as-widow, s/he who subsequently undermines the social divisions of class, gender, and sexual orientation represented on film and integral to the film as a communicative act. The man-as-widow explains the customs of the Days of the Dead while seated next to an altar filled with fruits and flowers and other offerings. Intercut with his/her explanation are shots of the widow in the celebration, until the point at which the man-as-widow takes off his/her veil, wig, and feather boa. In terms of gender, his/her image shifts; s/ he becomes a man in a black dress with smudged, theatrical face-paint. The blended gender of the fully costumed widow becomes an indeterminate gender halfway between the separate gender identities of male and female. Significantly, it is in this state of indeterminacy that the man's voice defines the ofrenda Over shots of the abuela choosing fruit from her altar to give to a neighbor, he narrates:

    Even the poor feel an obligation to make an offering. Like when they offer you an apple, they do it with a smile. They expect nothing in return. They share with you. That is the tradition. That is the legend.

    The word offering has a very special meaning in our Indian culture and in all cultures. The offering means love and love has no price. I believe that this tradition, that the Mexican people have deep inside, will never end. The offering continues. (5)

In his black dress and white make-up, he is a revealed calavera, a calavera who then offers the camera an apple. What sort of temptation is this offering from Eve, as widow, as calavera, as death? How is the man-as-widow, now the man- as-calavera, now the man-as-Eve, linked to the appearances of the abuela, herself a widow, in the opening and in the seventh segment?

First, in term of visuals, Eve is a transvestite calavera, offering the spectator the unrestricted sexuality of the celebration. (6) Because this sexuality is unrestricted it is also socially undefined. It is a sexuality not categorized; neither hetero- sexuality nor homosexuality as currently constructed in the United States or Mexico, it is merely sexuality. Seconds. in terms of visuals and sound, this Eve also incorporates all the meanings ascribed to the abuela. Far exceeding patriarchal notions of the widow activated and neutralized in the comparsa, in the film the abuela-as-widow is one who "expects nothing in return," who loves unconditionally, who loves everyone, all generations, living and dead. Her love is different from the steadfast love Paz describes as defining a (male) Mexican's relation to death. In Paz' s equation of love and death, one relates to death for how ultimately it will define one; Paz's love is one of closure and definition. As spoken on the lips of the widow, the abuela 's love always "continues": it is without end and without restriction. As defined by Paz, a Mexican's loving relationship with death is equivalent to a fatalism determinant of a Mexican national identity. As defined by the merged figures of the transvestite calavera and the grandmother, spoken in indeterminacy, the film's steadfast love, rather, is the liminality of life and death, the very liminality celebrated in the Days of the Dead. This film' s political project is to re-deploy, lovingly, the liminality of life and death to the liminality of Mexican and U.S. cultures. Eve-as-abuela crosses over the cultural divisions between Latino and Anglo cultures, bringing with her a commitment to equality. Class, gender, and sexual orientation are celebrated as identities while simultaneously subverted as social divisions. Eve-as-abuela incarnates a community solidarity that is inclusive of everyone.

The film’s momentary actualization of sexual, gender, and class neutrality and indeterminacy makes possible the symbolic transformation of border as dividing line into border as potentiality. In the final moments of the first part, the film’s steadfast acceptance of liminality enacts the subversion of the unjust social systems whose complete transformation the film advocates. Addressing its spectators as fellow celebrants who would accept the offering of the apple, who would enter into knowledge of difference and diversity, who themselves would also make an offering expecting nothing in return, the film transports its spectators across various social borders. This allows the viewers to reevaluate previous passages and then to turn their attention to "whatever else needs a little push."

Fading to black after shots of comparsa celebrants, including the widow, leaving the open and public space of the street, this segment's ending also is not closure but continuation. The establishing shots of the second part -- the Golden Gate Bridge, the streets of the Mission district -- linger on a Galería de la Raza mural of the Calavera Catrina, Posada' s famous calavera of a "fashionable lady.” (7) therefore linking the widow as-calavera and the Calavera Catrina. In the fourth narrative segment, a shot of Posada's engraving is followed by one of Diego Rivera's mural for the Hotel Prado, "Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central," which shows Frida Kahlo, a young Rivera, Jose Martí and other historical figures surrounding Posada's Calavera Catrina, to which Rivera has added an elegant dress and feather boa. Thus, in the film, Rivera ' s Calavera Catrina anticipates the widow, feather boa very much in display, of the "baile de Oaxaca." By association with the San Francisco Calavera Catrina, the widow-as-calavera is immediately back on the street, restricted by no border, ready to become a Chicana calavera. Within a few shots she will be a young woman whose face is being painted as a calavera for the Mission District's celebration of the Day of the Dead.

Coatlique, Children, and Anglos: Death Crosses Over

In language, the factor of cohesion, i.e., "the means whereby [linguistic] elements that are structurally unrelated to one another are linked together, through dependence of one on the other for its interpretation,"' is a matter of continual reappraisal by the interlocutor, while listening or reading, of that which has been stated before in light of that which has just been communicated. Likewise, the film spectator’s continuous reevaluation, in the process of viewing, of previous formal elements, powerfully engages the viewer in the constitution of a film's always multiple meanings. As will be shown below, in the case of La Ofrenda, the creation of indeterminacy and liminality in the film's narrative at the very moment the film switches location from Mexico to the United States (shifting from first to second part) requires the viewer to assume momentarily the viewpoint of the Chicana-as-calavera if the previous seven segments are to maintain their cohesion. Interestingly, in the transitional moment, the viewer -- as the female narrator said of the family awaiting there turn of their dead on the night of the celebration -- "lives not in anticipation, but in memory."

The female narrator's opening line of the film is: "What seemed unimportant then has now possessed my memory, how we treated one another, how we lived, takes on great significance ." At this point in the film' s narrative, the objective of the first part is revealed in retrospect that is, beyond documenting the Days of the Dead in Mexico and capturing those cultural elements which will be preserved in Chicano celebrations. the film argues that the Mexican culture of the ofrenda is better, for one and for all, than the Anglo culture of death found in the United States. The crucial phrase in the opening line is "bow we treated one another." The treatment, shown in the film to be equitable, is the measure of community or a society. The film argues that this treatment derives from subjectivities whose basis is the collective capacity to offer always, without fail, that which needs to be offered to one another. The film also argues that such subjectivities require the specific temporality celebrated in the Days of the Dead.

Two narrative elements, carefully introduced in the first part, become crucial to the argument about temporality: the imagery of children, deployed as a trope of cyclical time, and the representation of Anglo cruelty, both individual and societal. While childhood and childhood memories (such as the child's eye-level shot of the abuela 's feet during the walk to cemetery in the film's opening sequence) are evoked in the first narrative segment, the importance of the imagery of children does not become fully evident until the second and sixth segments, in other words, between the presentations of the grandmother and the widow. Segments two and three are responses to questions raised by the female narrator: "What is there in me of my Indian past?" and "What is in me of that conqueror of yesterday?" Predominantly montages of precolombian and colonial art and architecture, with increasingly dramatic voice-over including readings of translations of Cortez' letters to the King), the two segments suggest that indigenous culture will outlive the culture of the oppressors: "Under the veneer of Westernization, the cultures of the Indian world, that have existed for thirty thousand years, continue to live, sometimes in a magical way, sometimes in the shadows." The "magical" connection is dramatized in an interview in the second segment, at the ruins of Mitla ("the land of the dead") next to the Church of San Pablo, between the unit director or cinematographer (male voice in off) and a group of a campesinos, three adults and two children. Pressed by the ("Western") questioner, the elder campesino explains, smiling, that the camera should allow the questioner to see the spirits about which the latter is inquiring. As the group laughs at questioner, the shot pulls tight on the face of one of the young boys, who shyly hides his gap-toothed smile behind his hand. In quick succession, shots of still photos of precolombian statues of smiling boys, with a soundbridge of laughter, encompass the boy in cyclical time. This cyclical time is the film's version of indigenous concepts of temporality, a version in which repetition and renewal are an affirmation of history.

This latter designation of cultural continuity, of community identified always diachronically as well as synchronically, is associated with the life cycle in a second juxtaposition of child's face and artwork in the sixth segment. During the interview in the matachines workshop, there is a close-up shot composed of a young girl's face and part of a matachines box display, in which can be seen a small flower and a white-haired wooden calavera whose legs and arms the girl is manipulating. The girl's luminous smile, half in shadow of the box, affirms all that is joyous about the sense of temporality that the Days of the Dead celebrate. She is a calavera full of life and there can be nothing macabre in the foreknowledge of her death. The "magical" laughter and smiles of these children will serve as a counterpoint to Paz’s designation of death as the favorite toy of a Mexican (presumably adult) male. While both children's faces express the deference of children before adults, the editing, not in the least deferential, reveals the ways in which the children thoroughly exceed any explanations the adult female narrator can offer in her investigation of her cultural heritage. The young girl who will be a calavera and the boy whose face affirms thousands of years of Amerindian history subvert the linear lament of the two narrators. The children's freedom in the film's version of cyclical time, that is, the indeterminacy of their individual future and their steadfast promise of collective renewal, argues for a better temporality than the one in which the film's narrators and spectators currently exist.

In the transition between the second and third narrative segments, the imagery of children is metonymically associated with another temporal cycle, the often violent cycles of politics, broadly defined. After the sequence of the boy's smiling face, a montage of images of nature (moon reflected in the water, etc.) and Aztec sculptures, the narrators present in synthesis the history of the Conquest. It is here that the female narrator, questioning what Indian past informs her present, answers in affirmation: "Even greater than the stone sculptures, I carry inside of me the strength and weight of a brilliant and terrible past," as the camera tracks, low angle, the famous statue of Coatlique, the female earth deity (now housed in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City) with dual serpent heads, a necklace of skulls and a skirt of serpents. Interestingly, the narrator's affirmation elides the violent history of the Aztec empire with the violence of the Spanish conquest, rendering precolombian history as monolithic as the statue itself. This is, however, the second shot of the maternal deity Coatlique. Coatlique first appeared earlier in the sequence, just after a shot of the massive Coyolxauhqui Stone, the great horizontal disk on which is represented the dismembered body of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, defeated in battle by her brother Huitzilopochtli (uncovered in 1978, the stone is part of the Templo Mayor excavation in central Mexico City). These two female deities, complexity linked in Aztec symbology (the latter often as the daughter of the former) though not in the film, become the visual referent for the subsequent statement read from Cortez's letters that he tore down the Aztec's "principal idols," modifying therefore "the ancestral memory" of the narrators. If the principal idols are suggested to be female -- indeed, not only female but female operating within violent social orders -- then the memory which the female narrator is investigating becomes maternal, connecting over time to the situation of women within our own violent political order. The film affirms Coatlique's and the female narrator' s maternal responsibilities in time, that is, reproduction as the creation of life and as the creation of the present time, while Coyolxauhqui's dismembered body is, in the film, the briefest reminder of the political structures and violence that might undermine community and divest death of its joy.

The "brilliant and terrible past" which the female narrator "carries inside" her is next associated with the Anglo culture of death in the fifth segment. Returning to the Templo Mayor, first seen in the pan which opened the fourth segment which moved the spectator in time and space from the ruins of the Templo Mayor to the streets of modern Mexico City, the fifth segment consists of three interviews on the street with Anglos identified as "Americans Touring Mexico." The responses of the tourists are striking for what they reveal about Anglo xenophobia and ignorance, while the sequence is striking for the gentleness with which it treats these white abuelos for whom in the future, however they are remembered by kith and kin, no one will scatter cempazuchitl petals on the Day of the Dead. The tourists are asked (female voice in off) what they think about the Aztec concept of death. Every answer reveals a complete inability to conceptualize history and culture, let alone another culture's concept of death. The tourists answer the question from the perspective of how death affects them. The first man jocularly says that maybe it (Aztec culture in general?) was a good idea because he and the other members of the tourist group are getting to the age "where we have to start worrying about death." The second person interviewed, a woman, superimposes Christian theology onto the Aztecs, explaining the promise of an afterlife made poverty in the present life bearable and death something to which to look forward: "We fear death, but the Indians didn't." The final woman interviewed is a tall white widow, with soft white hair, who wears a white dress and hat. She is the image of ghostliness and, given the soft white hair, possibly anticipates the calavera in the little girl's matachines box in the next segment. Her anecdotal narrative, which ends with the words "It's just heartbreaking," is heartbreaking. Arms crossed, she asserts that in general people don't want talk about death, giving as an example her relatives who didn't want to listen to her talk about her husband' s death or share her grief. Her narrative suggests that which will be made explicit in the second part: the Anglo culture of death is unhealthy for individual and community.

This segment, with its Anglo ghosts lost at the Templo Mayor, is key in the construction of the Chicana narrative point of view which organizes the film. While the male and female narrators construct a linear history by mediating on cyclical time, the organizing perspective created by all elements in the first half of the film finally is revealed to be specifically Chicana. The children and the Anglos in the narrative segments between the presentation of the abuela and the man-as-widow are viewed by one who belongs to both Mexico and the United States, and one who is younger than a grandparent but caring, even parental, towards the children. The narrative cohesion of the seven segments of the first half, in which the Chicana perspective is unfolding, prepares the explicit, full embrace of the knowledge of a Chicana-as-calavera in the second half. At this structural midpoint, the journey in memory of the Chicana narrator now has brought her home to San Francisco to meet her other self: the Chicana-as-calavera. The liminality and indeterminacy introduced in the seventh segment, and its reworking of the prior film narrative, have made possible that she crosses back to her home with her subjective duality and non-linear temporality assured: death as affirmation crosses with her. The Chicana-as-calavera on screen at the beginning of the second part momentarily incarnates the film's overarching narrative authority. The Chicana-as-calavera in the Mission District in San Francisco is one who recognizes the meaning of and historical connection between Coatlique, children's smiles, and Anglo ignorance. The Chicana-as-calavera is the community and the nation as located in history.

Chicano Arts: "La Cultura Cura"

On the surface, the second part of La Ofrenda might appear to be a less layered narrative. The two narrators are less prominent in the second part because the interviews with Concha Saucedo and Amalia Mesa-Bains serve as principal commentary on the Mission District celebrations and the three altars which are shown in detail. Saucedo, a psychologist, speaks directly of the ways in which "culture heals" as does Mesa-Bains, who at several different points discusses why Day of the Dead celebrations have attracted so many non-Chicanos.

    [Mesa-Bains] Death is almost an obscenity in this culture and among Latinos and Chicanos, particularly in the Mission District community around the time of Día de los Muertos, death is made to be lovable, life-giving, joyful, ironic...all the things other people can't have. I believe that it why it [the celebration] has grown, the highly proportionate number of people outside the community joining in.

    [Mesa-Bains] Life and death are truly the core experiences that will, in fact, bind people together, and that to me, there is a kind of space between life and death and that space is healing. Art is about healing. When people participate in art, when they make it, when they see it, it is the same thing as making yourself well.

While Mesa-Bains identifies the liminality between life and death as a space of healing for both Latino and Anglo cultures, the interview with Saucedo reminds the spectator of divisions internal to Chicano subjectivity: by maintaining cultural traditions, Chicanos will heal wounds inflicted by a surrounding Anglo culture. Health, then, is individual and political.

In fact, the emphasis on health raises the question of the nature of the threats to health that Chicanos face, and allows the Chicana-as- calavera to subvert any temporal stasis that might be thought inherent in documentation, filmic or otherwise. The nature of the threats are revealed in the three altars discussed in depth. The explanation of the first altar, presented in Spanish, focuses on the meaning of each of the requisite items, such as the special bread, candles with ribbons, flowers, water, or incense, and emphasizes, as in the Mexican celebrations, the temporal connection between the living and the dead: the dead "appreciate our efforts on this day" and they will return "even if we are far from our country." One threat, then, is an Anglo concept of time which severs present from past, the living from the dead, and, significantly, separates one nation from another. The artist who designed the second altar explains that it commemorates friends and relatives who died of AIDS or who died young in accidents. These loved ones died tragically, but their spirits are embraced and they are not forgotten. The skull at the top that bears the name SIDA (the Spanish acronym for AIDS) is familiar, like a candy sugar skull with the name of a loved one. This second altar suggests that another threat is the political climate in the United States, where there is insufficient funding for AIDS research and for medical care and support services for those who are HIV positive. These politics are part of an Anglo culture of death that foments tragedy and permits social divisions. The third altar is dedicated to "all the children dying in all the countries" in the numerous wars and conditions of poverty and is filled with offerings by other children, such as a toy a child had been given by her mother before the mother died. The daughter wished to share the toy with the spirits of children who would return on the Day of the Dead. The violence of war and economic violence threaten the Mission community from the outside, for like the plague of AIDS, this violence is allowed to spread by an inhumane politics of exclusion. Governmental politics of exclusion, ours and that of other nations, threatens the health of the Chicano community. Against this death threat, this threat of eradication, is arrayed the community solidarity created by dancing calaveras and joyous offerings.

In its appreciation of the ways in which "people mock death and gender and whatever else needs a little push," the film itself pushes its spectators more than a little bit. When death crosses over with the Chicana-as-calavera from Mexico to the United States, from memory to the present, the spectator must cross too. In this crossing, which reveals the ways in which subjectivities complexity activate historical knowledge, the spectator, whatever his/her various subjectivities, must view from within the Chicana-as- calavera's temporality. Within her time, "whatever else needs a little push," though it may be systemic in nature, cannot be static. Indeed, everything in the category "whatever else needs a little push" seriously threatens the community by undermining the appreciation of liminality and indeterminacy that makes community possible in the first place. Community is possible only when difference is appreciated as potentiality. This appreciation is the film's ofrenda to the various spectator positions it addresses.

In another context, Amalia Mesa-Bains has argued convincingly that Chicana artists have played a determinant role and provided a "new aesthetic vocabulary" in furthering the cultural transformations that will allow the populace of United States as whole to realize the potential of its multiculturalism. (9)

    Narration, the circumscription of domestic space and spirit, indictment, and ceremony are often fissured in a constantly shifting language. These artists move freely within broad sensibilities and intentions, breaking preexisting categories and enlarging the feminine. Reclaiming our past and marking our experiences through our culture and lives have been the real contributions of Chicana artists. Their work continually recasts an open identity where tradition and innovation must live together. (10)

La Ofrenda: The Days of the Dead is one such work that "recasts an open identity" at the same time as it is an indictment of the politics of exclusion that may well undermine the United States as a collectivity in some near future. The Chicana-as-calavera, constructed in the film as its principal narrator, on whose lips the word death does not burn, addresses the film's spectators with exactly the "broad sensibilities and intentions" described above. So broad are they, in fact, that she crosses thirty centuries of time and two nations of space to reach her audience. Having arrived home, however, she creates a new comparsa in which her viewers are invited to dance. The final segment of the film takes place in a multiracial classroom in San Francisco. The teacher has asked his students to think either of what they would wish for themselves before they die or what they would wish for their classmate whose mother has died just recently. One child wishes that their friend will feel better when he comes back to school, others that their children would stay healthy, a brother would take care of a mother, no one else would die, they would see their best friend or a friend would be already married. The last wish in the film is that of a young girl for a reunion of all her friends before she died. When the teacher asks, smiling, if she would invite him, she, smiling, silently shrugs and everyone in the room laughs together. Will the adults (male) be invited? The Chicana- as-calavera would definitely invite one and all, but will the children invite the generations to which the spectators belong? What are the future conditions that will bring everyone to the comparsa?

Between the final quotation by Paz and the credits, there is a montage of takes from the cemetery in Oaxaca and the classroom in San Francisco. The familiar brass band music, local and localizable, which has accompanied the Days of the Dead celebration sequences plays once again, The brief image of the female celebrant who incarnates the Chicana-as-calavera, first introduced at the beginning of the second part, reappears: her face now fully painted, she breaks into a radiant smile much like those of the children in prior sequences. As physical incarnation of the film's principal narrative perspective, this Chicana-as-calavera, intentionally or not, wears the filmmakers' rather mischievous final smiles(s)). By participating in the Chicana temporality which the film has enacted as an ofrenda to its audience, the viewer engages with the filmmakers' joyfully subversive politics of community.

Preliminary ideas for this paper were presented at the conference "Cruzando fronteras: Primer encuentro de cineastas y videastas latinas. Mexico-Estados Unidos, " Colegio de la Frontera None, Tijuana, Mexico, November 29-December 2, 1990.


1. Distributed by Xochitl Films, 981 Esmeralda Street, San Francisco, California 94110. For a comprehensive discussion of the issues raised by the film. see Rosa Linda Fregoso's The Bronze Screen. Chicano and Chicana Film Practice, forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

2. The credits acknowledge use of excerpts from Octavio Paz's The Labyrinth of Solitude. Carlos Fuentes' "On the Run," Mother Jones ( 1988) and an Aztec poem, however, the narrators only twice distinguish between excerpts and original text in their voiceover.

3. Published in 1950, The Labyrinth of Solitude predates current standards of gender neutral language. In the Spanish of the period, "el mexicano" could have been meant to be inclusive of all Mexicans, me n and women. but given the patriarchal inferences in the text (i.e., that a Mexican treats death the way a man treats a woman in what Paz must have considered a normative heterosexual relationship), this statement indicates that Paz views citizenship to be an exclusively male identity.

4.Tomas Ybarra-Frausto discusses the celebrations as an act of volition in "Recuerdo, Descubrimiento. Voluntad: Mexican/Chicano Customs for the Day of the Dead" in the Día de los Muertos exhibition catalogue of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. Chicago, 1987-1990.

5. Spoken in Spanish with English subtitles.

6. See Majorie Garber's Vested Interests: Cross- Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York and London; Routledge, 1992) for a discussion of the ways in which transvestism is culturally constitutive.

7. See Posada's Popular Mexican Prints, Roberto Berdecio and Stanley Applebaum, eds. (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), p. 15.

8. M.A.K. Halliday and Ruquiaya Hasan, Cohesion in English (London: Longman Group Ltd, 1976), 3rd printing, p. 27.

9. "El mundo femenino: Chicana Artists of the Movement -- A Commentary On Development and Production" in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985, Richard Griswold del Castillo, Teresa McKenna and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, eds., (Los Angeles: UCLA Wight Art Gallery, 1991), pp. 131- 140. See also her essay '”The Real Multiculturalism: A Struggle for Authority and Power," in Different Voices: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Framework for Change h the American Art Museum, New York: Association of American Art Museum Directors, 1992), pp. 86-100.

10. Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965- 1985, p. 140.